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Social Exclusion and the Deconstructed State

Social Exclusion and the Deconstructed State

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Published by: Chris Horymski on Oct 22, 2010
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Social Exclusion and the Deconstructed State: Time Perception,Meaninglessness, Lethargy, Lack of Emotion, and Self-Awareness
Jean M. Twenge
San Diego State University
Kathleen R. Catanese and Roy F. Baumeister
Case Western Reserve University
The authors hypothesize that socially excluded individuals enter a defensive state of cognitive decon-struction that avoids meaningful thought, emotion, and self-awareness, and is characterized by lethargyand altered time flow. Social rejection led to an overestimation of time intervals, a focus on the presentrather than the future, and a failure to delay gratification (Experiment 1). Rejected participants were morelikely to agree that “Life is meaningless” (Experiment 2). Excluded participants wrote fewer words anddisplayed slower reaction times (Experiments 3 and 4). They chose fewer emotion words in an implicitemotion task (Experiment 5), replicating the lack of emotion on explicit measures (Experiments 1–3 and6). Excluded participants also tried to escape from self-awareness by facing away from a mirror(Experiment 6).
The desire to be accepted by other people is one of the mostbasic and pervasive human drives (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).When that drive is thwarted through social exclusion or rejection,people react in a variety of negative ways. People who have beenostracized report decrements in physical health and increases instress and anxiety (K. D. Williams, 2001). People who feel ex-cluded or rejected often become more aggressive as a result(Kirkpatrick, Waugh, Valencia, & Webster, 2002; Leary, Kowal-ski, Smith, & Phillips, 2003; Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, & Stucke,2001). Self-defeating behavior often increases among sociallyexcluded people (Twenge, Catanese, & Baumeister, 2002), andrejected people experience declines in self-esteem (Leary, Tambor,Terdal, & Downs, 1995). Prisoners who have been subjected tosolitary confinement show an increase in psychotic behaviors(McGuire & Raleigh, 1986).Why does social exclusion cause these negative outcomes?Early theorizing proposed that heightened states of emotionaldistress would mediate between social exclusion and negativebehavior. Although intuitively plausible, the emotional distresstheory has not received much support. We have found that socialexclusion produces few differences in emotion but large differ-ences in behavior (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, in press; Twengeet al., 2001, 2002; however, Buckley, Winkel, & Leary, 2002, andK. D. Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000, did find significant effectsfor mood using somewhat different manipulations). Even when theeffects on emotion do reach significance in our research, they havefailed to mediate the relationship between exclusion and negativebehaviors. Even K. D. Williams (2001), who has found somesignificant effects of ostracism on anxiety and other mood reports,observed that victims of ostracism often seem to respond in anumb and neutral manner rather than with overt displays of emo-tion: “It was as though they had been hit with a stun gun” (p. 159).In this article, we hypothesize that social exclusion will lead tofeelings of inner numbness. People may respond with empty,neutral, and even bored feelings when their need to belong isthwarted, rather than the acute emotional distress that at firstseemed plausible. In fact, such numbness could ward off theemotional distress that might otherwise arise by defensively iso-lating affect and keeping negative feelings out of awareness (e.g.,Massong, Dickson, Ritzler, & Layne, 1982). This state has beencharacterized as one of cognitive deconstruction, which is markednot only by a lack of emotion but also by an altered sense of time,an immersion in the present rather than past or future, a relativeabsence of meaningful thought, and lethargy, all of which may bedriven by the attempt to escape from aversive self-awareness(Baumeister, 1990, 1991; see also Vallacher & Wegner, 1985,1987). In other words, people may use the deconstructed state as adefense against the negative experience of social rejection.
Suicide, Exclusion, and Deconstruction
To construct a theoretical approach, we consulted another liter-ature—research on suicide—in which emotional distress was in-tuitively plausible, but findings failed to confirm hypotheses. Itseemed logical to assume that people who kill themselves (or evenattempt to do so) must be suffering from acute unhappiness.Contrary to that view, most findings suggest that the presuicidalstate is marked by flat affect. For example, suicidal people find itmore difficult to recall emotion-laden memories (J. M. Williams &
Jean M. Twenge, Department of Psychology, San Diego State Univer-sity; Kathleen R. Catanese and Roy F. Baumeister, Department of Psy-chology, Case Western Reserve University.Roy F. Baumeister is now at the Department of Psychology, FloridaState University.During part of the completion of this research, Jean M. Twenge wassupported by National Institute of Mental Health National Research Ser-vice Award Postdoctoral Grant MH12329. We thank Janet Cacho, DinaCuervo, and Jay Rudeen for serving as experimenters and Sander Koole forhis invaluable help with the computer program in Experiment 5.Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jean M.Twenge, Department of Psychology, San Diego State University, 5500Campanile Drive, San Diego, California 92182-4611. E-mail: jtwenge@mail.sdsu.edu
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Copyright 2003 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.2003, Vol. 85, No. 3, 409423 0022-3514/03/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.85.3.409
Broadbent, 1986) and perform better on tasks with affectivelyneutral stimuli (Geller & Atkins, 1978).Building on those observations, Baumeister (1990) proposedthat the presuicidal state is characterized by a defensive reactioncalled cognitive deconstruction. Most suicide attempts are pre-ceded by some failure or setback that reflects badly on the self. Theperson seeks to avoid the aversive self-awareness and the acuteemotional distress that would ensue from thinking about the im-plications of this recent failure. This is accomplished by having anarrowly concrete focus on the immediate present rather than abroadly meaningful thought pattern. Vallacher and Wegner (1985)described this state as low levels of action identification. Thishere-and-now focus may be successful in warding off the intenseemotion that would accompany meaningful self-awareness, but itcauses other undesirable effects. Inhibitions are undermined be-cause most of them involve meaningful prescriptions about behav-ior, and so the deconstructed state can cause a variety of impulsiveand disinhibited behavior (of which suicide attempts are oneimportant form). Without meaning, time seems to drag, and theperson remains stuck in a relatively empty present moment, cut off from past and future. Deprived of reasons for action, the personmay become passive, lethargic, and idle (which may at least reducethe number of actual suicide attempts).Several parallels between suicide research and the impact of social exclusion suggested that the deconstructed state might berelevant to both. First, being rejected or excluded from socialgroups is often a negative experience that could reflect badly onthe self, which is just the sort of experience that typically precedessuicide attempts. Excluded people may therefore be wishing toavoid self-awareness and the accompanying thoughts about whatmight be wrong with them (to have caused others to reject them).Second, as already noted, the absence of emotion was a surprisingbut repeated finding in both literatures.Third, there have been some signs of lethargy among rejected orostracized individuals. K. D. Williams
s (2001, chapter 7) allusionto the
stun gun
effect of being ostracized was an attempt tointegrate a pattern of observations on how research participantslooked and acted after the people sitting on either side of them hadstudiously ignored them while talking to each other. Theyslumped, stared at their feet, showed no emotion, ignored every-thing around them, and even sat there doing nothing when theexperiment was ended and everyone else got up to leave. In otherresearch, K. D. Williams, Cheung, and Choi (2000) reported anincrease in conformity among people who had been ostracized.The authors interpreted this as a bid to win acceptance by actinglike other people, but it could also reflect passivity: The personconforms rather than acting in an independent, self-assertivemanner.Fourth, just as suicide is self-destructive, self-destructive behav-ior has been found to follow from social exclusion. Laboratorystudies by Twenge et al. (2002) found increases in an assortmentof self-defeating behaviors among participants who had been so-cially excluded: They made a higher proportion of unhealthychoices, procrastinated, and took foolish risks. Some of thesepatterns also reflect the impulsive aspect of the deconstructed state.Last, there is a direct link between social exclusion and suicide,which has been apparent for over a century. Durkheim (1897/ 1963) showed that suicide rates are highest among people who arenot well integrated into society as a whole, and subsequent work has continued to support this conclusion (e.g., Trout, 1980). Manysuicide attempts are directly traceable to recent experiences of social exclusion, such as loss of job or marriage, and suicide ratesare elevated in ethnic groups or occupational categories dwindlingin size (see Baumeister, 1990, for review).On the basis of these parallels, we hypothesized that socialexclusion might well produce the deconstructed state identified inpresuicidal individuals. If social exclusion thwarts a basic humandrive and challenges one
s self-worth, then people might prefer toescape self-awareness and emotional distress by hiding out in amental state marked by numbness, lack of meaningful thought, anda narrow focus on concrete, immediate stimuli. We hypothesizethat both social rejection (being rejected by a group of peers) andsocial exclusion (hearing that one will be alone later in life) willlead to the deconstructed state. These are somewhat differentexperiences; rejection is more unambiguously personal, but maybe confined to a specific incident, whereas exclusion is less per-sonal but longer lasting. Although these two experiences maydiffer, we hypothesize that their behavioral and emotional effectswill be similar.
Predictions: Exclusion and Deconstruction
The present investigation used a series of experiments thatmanipulated social exclusion and then measured various featuresof the deconstructed state. It would be excessive to propose that asimple laboratory manipulation of social exclusion compares witha presuicidal state. However, these manipulations might makeself-awareness aversive enough for people to seek refuge in emo-tional numbness and an absence of meaningful thought. Our pre-dictions were therefore as follows.
Present Orientation Versus Future Orientation
One of the main components of the deconstructed state of suicidal patients is a focus on the present instead of the future.Suicidal people find it difficult to think about the future (Neuringer& Harris, 1974), and they cannot make elaborate predictions aboutthe future (Yufit & Benzies, 1973). When given a sentence-completion task, these patients choose fewer future-tense verbs, ascompared with control participants (Greaves, 1971). Many seemunable to envision the future and even unable to name any poten-tial consequences of killing themselves (Weiss, 1957). They focuson the present and do not wish to deal with the future.Time span is correlated with meaning. As Vallacher and Wegner(1985, 1987) showed, meaningful thought at high levels of actionidentification encompasses long time spans, extending into the pastand future, whereas less meaningful forms of thought focus onnarrow slices of time, especially the immediate present. If socialexclusion causes a shift toward the deconstructed state, then ex-cluded participants should be more focused on the present ratherthan the future.
 Disordered Time Perception
According to some theories, this focus on the present representssome people
s defensive attempts to stop time and not think abouta hopeless future (Hendin, 1982). This leads to a distorted timeperception in which the present seems to last longer than usual.
When asked to estimate how much time had elapsed during 30-sand 60-s intervals, suicidal patients overestimated the amount of time that had passed (Neuringer & Harris, 1974). In contrast,control participants estimated the time intervals fairly accurately.Several other studies found similar results (e.g., Blewett, 1992;Brockopp & Lester, 1970; Greaves, 1971; Tysk, 1984; Wyrick &Wyrick, 1977).Time perception can be distorted in either direction, of course.Under some circumstances, people may underestimate time inter-vals. The
state identified by Csikszentmihalyi (1990) istypically described as a loss of the sense of the passage of time, sothat people in flow are often surprised to discover how late it hasgrown while they were immersed in their activities. Flow is theopposite of deconstructed numbness, even though both can bedescribed as some kind of immersion in the present. In flow,awareness is absorbed in some deeply satisfying activity, and soeach moment is rich. In deconstruction, the present serves as anescape from meaningful activity, and so it is experienced asrelatively empty, even oppressively boring. The two states haveopposite effects: Someone in flow finds that time flies, whereassomeone in a deconstructed state finds that time drags.Hence, we predicted that social exclusion should distort theperception of time flow in the same way that deconstruction does.That is, excluded individuals should overestimate the duration of experimentally controlled intervals. In that way, they would re-semble severely bored people for whom time drags by slowly. Theopposite distortion, in which they would underestimate the dura-tion of intervals, is more characteristic of meaningful absorption instimulating activity, and that seemed very unlikely among sociallyexcluded individuals.
The deconstructed state also includes a tendency to reject mean-ing and higher order explanations. Suicidal people are cognitivelyrigid and use a narrow perspective as a way to cope with theirsituation (Baumeister, 1990). In addition, they see little meaning inlife and believe that life is not worth living. One study found aconnection between suicidal tendencies and lack of perceivedmeaning in life (Edwards & Holden, 2001). Rogers (2001) hasasserted that a failure to create meaning underlies most suicideattempts. Social exclusion may produce a similar mental state, asa present or future without close relationships may seem mean-ingless. K. D. Williams (2001) theorized that ostracism threatensmeaningful existence because being ignored by others simulatesthe invisibility and worthlessness of death (pp. 63
64). Acrossseveral studies, K. D. Williams and his colleagues found thatostracized people reported that their sense of meaningful existencehad been threatened (K. D. Williams, Bernieri, Faulkner, Grahe, &Gada-Jain, 2000; K. D. Williams et al., 2002; K. D. Williams,Shore, & Grahe, 1998).Meaningful thought is an important basis for self-awareness andemotion, as these depend on interpreting one
s current situationand comparing it with standards. Rejection may threaten meaning-fulness because it strikes a blow against one
s anticipated futurelife as surrounded with friends and family. At a simpler level,meaningful thought may be aversive in the wake of rejectionbecause the person is tempted to ask why he or she was rejected,and many possible answers would reflect badly on the self. Evad-ing meaningful thought is therefore important for the strategy of warding off aversive self-awareness and emotional distress.In the present investigation, we included a brief measure of perceived meaningfulness of life, and we predicted that socialexclusion
even a laboratory manipulation that was separate fromall the meaningful aspects of the person
s life outside the labora-tory
would cause participants to shift toward perceiving lessmeaning in their lives.
Suicidal people often display chronic passivity and lethargy,which constitute another characteristic of the deconstructed state.Suicide notes often express acceptance and passive submission(Henken, 1976), and suicidal patients are generally more passive(Gerber, Nehemkis, Farberow, & Williams, 1981; Mehrabian &Weinstein, 1985). These patients also exhibit an external locus of control and thus perceive personal action as unnecessary, becausethey feel their fate is out of their hands (Gerber et al., 1981; Melges& Weisz, 1971; Topol & Reznikoff, 1982). As Baumeister (1990)observed, passivity further enables those in the deconstructed stateto escape from self-awareness.In addition, passivity and lethargy may result from the decon-structed state because many actions and decisions require mean-ingful thought, which is aversive in the wake of rejection. That is,a rejected person may minimize emotional distress by avoidingmeaning, but the basis for intelligent and planful action is under-mined as well. (Impulsive or aimless activity, automatic responses,and simple compliance with clear external demands would not beprevented, however, because these do not require meaningfulchoice.) Moreover, self-conscious action tends to implicate the self as a responsible agent, so people who wish to avoid self-awarenessmay shun such action. As noted above, social ostracism leads tolethargic behavior (K. D. Williams, 2001), although up to nowthose reports have been anecdotal. In the present investigation, wemeasured lethargy during a writing task and a reaction-time task.
 Lack of Emotion
Presuicidal individuals tend to report an absence of emotion(e.g., Geller & Atkins, 1978; J. M. Williams & Broadbent, 1986),which at first seems counterintuitive. After all, if one is not upset,why try to kill oneself? Baumeister (1990) proposed that thepresuicidal state is actually accompanied by defensive efforts toshut down one
s emotional responses to avoid the acute distressthat might accompany meaningful thought about one
s circum-stances, which for presuicidal people are often quite negative.As already indicated, the lack of emotion observed in ourprevious studies of social exclusion (e.g., Baumeister et al., 2002;Twenge et al., 2001, 2002) came as a surprise and prompted us torevise our assumptions about what mediates the behavioral effectsof thwarting the need to belong. We were reluctant to conclude thatthe lack of emotion meant that participants were fully indifferent tothe manipulations of social rejection and exclusion. Instead, webegan to think that they entered into the deconstructed state as away of warding off emotion and defending themselves againstnegative affect.A simpler explanation for the lack of self-reported emotion inour studies is that participants have simply been reluctant to admit

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